The Interfaith Challenge | Not in Our Town

The Interfaith Challenge

The searing controversy over the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero in New York has exposed deep divisions and unhealed wounds in our country. (The comments on this recent Washington Post article by Eboo Patel illustrate these deep rifts.)

Whether the debate stems from bigotry toward Muslims, or insensitivity to the tragedy of 9/11 depends on your perspective-- but emotions are flared and battle lines are being drawn.

How can we turn this crisis into an opportunity to find a new way to talk to each other about the issues that are emerging? In our town, public radio station KQED hosted a forum with local religious leaders. Listen to the forum here.

How is the controversy playing out in your community? How can we open up a constructive dialogue? Please post your examples and ideas.


Here is something I just wrote for our newsletter, which will go out next week:

Dear friends,

I don’t much want to talk about it, or have felt the need to weigh in on the subject much, but it appears that the matter of the proposed mosque in Manhattan has taken on a life of its own. Justin Elliott of reports that the approval process for the building was going along smoothly until Pam Geller of Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) created and fanned flames with her blog post last May, “Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction.”  That moment became the true Ground Zero of this particular anti-Islamic movement.

All of a sudden, the story is not about a progressive Islamic group seeking to create a community center — yes, one that has a mosque in it — in a building that has been uninhabited since 9/11/01.  It is now about the supposed Islamic invasion of our country, and about imams laughing over the desecration of American Holy Soil.

I hate to say it, but these are very old, and often very effective, tactics that have been used to discriminate against the latest wave of American immigrants, from the Quakers and Catholics to the Irish and Italians, to the Chinese, Mexicans, Iranians, Filipinos, you name the country of origin.  The strategy is dirty, nasty, even deadly, and, evidently, still alive.

But it is not seemly to prove you’re big by rolling around in the muck.  The people and forces that brought down the World Trade towers and those in them almost nine years ago were dastardly, no doubt about it.  And the memories of those who died, and the manner in which they died, are still raw.

But the plan for this mosque and center is not about sticking a finger in another’s eye, it’s about joining hands. 

Yes, I’ve heard and read about the liberals who are swallowing the obfuscation of this Islamic fifth column activity, supposedly people like me.  Not much I can do to defend that charge.  I suppose if we could play out one scenario of engagement, and then the other, and compare the results, and then reverse time to enact the scenario that led to more life, it wouldn’t be a bad idea.  But all we have is this one timeline.  And all we can do is to look down the pike with as much wisdom and love and insight as we can muster, and then act.

Orinda resident, Doug Krotz, is about to come out with a book entitled The Man Who Sent the Magi, about the ancient religious reformer, Zarathustra, who posited (upon receiving revelation) that the world is the field of battle between good and evil  And he also taught that in the end, evil is only an illusion.  It is simply joined in collusion by those who give themselves over to it.

The evil here is not Islam, per se.  Evil may include some people who call themselves Muslim, or Christian for that matter.  Evil can be the desire for retribution against those who did not do the original deed.  It can be a lack of discernment of our neighbors’ good will.  It can be a grinding, flaming, perpetual paranoia.  It can be a spite that is willing to burn down the world for a supposed sense of justice.

We at the Interfaith Council, along with countless others, near and far, stand for the exact opposite.  We promote clarity, understanding, compassion, kindness, willingness to risk for the other’s sake.

One of our Executive Committee members, Dr. Amer Araim, recently wrote in the CC Times,

Understandably, this is a sensitive issue for many Americans, both Muslim and non-Muslim.  Since that horrendous event, American Muslim communities all over the United States have recommitted themselves to vehemently opposing terrorism and working to improve interfaith understanding and dialogue.

The Muslim community in lower Manhattan and the American Society for Muslim Advancement have worked closely with the local New York community in the planning of this community center, and have made every effort to ensure that this center will be dedicated to interfaith cooperation and to serve the entire community….

To those fair-minded individuals who have honest reservations about the project, I wish to say ‘Salaam, shalom and peace,’ and I am confident that the Muslim community...will address your honest concerns about the project.

It is important to speak out against evil.  (That, in my opinion, is what this column is about.)  But how much better to spend our time living out and extolling true virtues, walking in the ways of true goodness, realizing what tools we might need to build the beloved community, that which is needed to carry us whole through whatever awaits us in the future.

A fringe pastor who leads a flock of fifty in Florida is urging people to join him in a Koran Burning event on September 11. A broad group of Gainesville Florida faith leaders have joined together to denounce the burning of books and scripture.

Here is an excerpt from their message and plans for interfaith action.


Area faith leaders: Book-burning has no place here


Published: Thursday, August 26, 2010 at 1:17 p.m. 
Last Modified: Thursday, August 26, 2010 at 1:17 p.m.

We as people of faith from a great variety of religious congregations in Gainesville stand together in affirmation of one another, especially our Muslim sisters and brothers in this time when threats against their holy scripture and their faith itself are made by The Dove World Outreach Center in this town. The news of their intent to burn the Quran on September 11 has been carried throughout the world.



In 1933 Berlin, Nazi minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels began a campaign of burning books by Jewish authors across the square from famous Humboldt University. Today, on that site, there is a plaque with the prophetic words of German poet Heinrich Heine written in 1820, “There, where they burn books, they will in the end burn people.”

We state clearly the act of burning the sacred scripture of Islam has no place in our faith, our religious communities, our town, or in our nation.

Congregations of Jews and Christians from many denominations are standing together in a variety of ways to say to those who espouse this hatred; not here, not now, not ever.

In common affirmation of one another, four interfaith activities are planned and others are emerging.

First, there is a call to all religious communities to join in the sharing common readings from the Quran, Hebrew Scripture, and Christian scripture at their worship services on September 11 and 12. Each will include these readings in their own places of worship at their own Sabbath services.

Second, an interfaith service of prayer and readings is planned for Wednesday, September 8 at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church at noon.

Third, the Gainesville Interfaith Forum is holding a Gathering for Peace Understanding and Hope at Trinity United Methodist Church.  

Read more here and see who signed the letter:


Keep this going please, great job!

Here is an excerpt from a recent sermon by Rev. Dr. Alan Kelchner of Danville Congregational Church:

Repairers of the Breach
            Should they be allowed to build a mosque at Ground Zero?  This question has been in the news for the past few weeks, with politicians and pundits weighing in on every side of the issue - depending on which way they think the political winds are blowing.  And it’s understandable.  After all, we’re in the midst of an election season, and both sides are looking to gain an advantage.   
            Now, I have absolutely no desire to get involved in the political debate.  And I have no great insight about how to balance people’s sensitivity over 9/11 with the rights and needs of the people of New York. 
            However, I do want to speak to the profound spiritual issue that is at stake here.  Some things are being said right now that simply have to be addressed.  As people of faith, we cannot let them go unchallenged.
            But let me start off by just expressing my astonishment and my admiration (I guess) at how adept the Far Right is at framing issues.  In this case, they have taken a non-controversial local issue, that has been moving along just fine with broad community support, and they have completely re-framed it, and turned it into a national debate.
            As an example, I recently saw a video clip from a few months ago, of a prominent Muslim leader, Daisy Khan, being interviewed on Fox News about this project.  At the end, the interviewer says, “Well, I can’t seem to find anyone who has a problem with this project.  Mayor Bloomberg is in favorite of it.  Local rabbis are very positive....  Miss Kahn, we appreciate what you are trying to do.”  This was Fox News - 8 months ago.
            However, that was before somebody got the bright idea to start calling this project the “Ground Zero Mosque” - a phrase which is not only inflammatory, but also highly misleading. 
            After all, what is being proposed is not a mosque, per se, but a 15-story-high Community Center for the thousands of Muslims who live in the area.  “Park51,” as it is called, will include a swimming pool, a basketball court, a performing arts center, a bookstore, an art gallery, meeting rooms, and yes, of course, a place of prayer - because Muslims pray often.  Space would be available for outside community groups to rent, including other religious faiths - much like our campus here at DCC.
            But even more misleading is the claim that the proposed building site is “at” Ground Zero.  It’s not.  Instead, it’s in a neighborhood that is 2½  blocks away.  You can’t even see the World Trade Center site from there!
            And there is nothing new about the fact that Muslims are living, and practicing their faith, within 2 or 3 blocks of the World Trade Center site.  They have been there for 30 years (!) in well-established communities.   
            Now, to me, it says a lot that the people of lower Manhattan - the people who truly suffered the most in the 9/11 attack, the people who are closest to these issues, and the civic leaders who have been studying this proposal for a long time - are overwhelmingly supportive.
            The Manhattan Community Board voted 29-1 in favor of the project. And the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has strongly and consistently said that the
proposed Islamic Community Center is a good thing for the city.  
            But, now that has become a national media story, I guess we will just wait and see what happens. 
            I want to move on to the spiritual issue, and the piece of all this that concerns you and me most directly.  What I am referring to is the prejudice and the bigotry toward Islam that has revealed itself over these past couple of weeks.   Dear friends, there is xenophobia, and fear-mongering, abroad in the land.  People are saying hurtful and hateful things, that are designed to demonize people who are “not like us.”  And you and I cannot just idly sit by; we have a responsibility to do what we can to end this.
            Many inflammatory things have been said.  But perhaps the most outrageous example is the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, who has repeatedly used the analogy that we wouldn’t allow Nazis to put up a sign by the Holocaust Memorial; therefore we can’t allow Muslims to build a community center in lower Manhattan.
            In saying this, he is drawing a direct parallel between Nazis and  Muslims.  And he is deliberately conflating these moderate, respectable Muslims who live in Manhattan with the despicable terrorists who attacked us.  In so doing, this prominent American political leader demonizes all 1.3 billion Muslims in the world - the vast majority of whom are good and decent people: people with whom we share this planet, people whom we need to get along with, and people who deserve our respect.
            And you and I, as people of faith, cannot let such statements stand.
            Yes, there are Muslims who have done terrible, hateful things.  And there are plenty of Islamic terrorists who seek to do us harm - and we are counting on our government to stay vigilant against them. 
            But, you know, there are also plenty of Christians who have done terrible, vicious things; and my point is that we don’t judge all of Christianity by deviants who use the name of Christ to do despicable violence. 
            The Nazis, don’t forget, were Christians.  Adolf Hitler was raised a Catholic, although it was Protestant pastors and churches that gave him so much support in the early days of his rise to power. 
            So, OK, if we want to bring the Nazis into this, here’s the proper analogy: Osama bin Laden and the Terrorists are to Islam, as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis are to Christianity.  The terrorists are to Islam as the Nazis are to Christianity.
            For just as the Nazis were an aberration, a twisted distortion of Christian faith, so also the Taliban and al-Qaeda are an aberration, a twisted distortion of the Muslim faith.  Terrorists are a perversion of true Islam - which is a religion of peace, humility, and self-discipline. 
            James Hutson is one of the head librarians at the Library of Congress and the author of a book entitled, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.  He points out that our founding fathers understood the Islam better than we seem to.
            Hutson cites Thomas Jefferson demanding recognition for the religious rights of the "Mahamadan," the Jew, and the "pagan."   Jefferson recounts with satisfaction that his own state of Virginia passed a religious freedom bill (five years before the US Bill of Rights) that was designed to protect "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan." 
            You may also recall that, 4 years ago, when Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison became the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, he took the oath of office with his hand, not on the Bible, but on the Qu’ran.  And the Qu’ran that he used belonged to Thomas Jefferson!
            George Washington declared that he would gladly welcome "Mohometans" to Mount Vernon - who were hard-working, law-abiding people.  Another signer of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee, said that “Religious freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Hindu, as well as the Christian religion."
            Based on his research, Hutson concludes that our founding fathers, rather than fearing Islam, would have incorporated it into the fabric of American life.
            Last week, one of our own young people, Caitlin Kawaguchi, stood in this pulpit and spoke eloquently of how essential it is for people from different religious faiths to understand each other, and to work together; that this the pathway to true and lasting peace in the world.  Caitlin was a participant this summer in the Interfaith Youth Initiative, sponsored by Brandeis and Harvard universities.  
            Yesterday, I received an email from a friend of mine, whose son is a US Army infantry officer, stationed in eastern Afghanistan.  Last week, she had a chance to speak with her son, by phone.
            Here is what she wrote to me:  “My son is very disturbed by the controversy over building the mosque in NYC, near the World Trade Center site.  He agrees that it shouldn't be built near the site.  He thinks it should be built directly ON the World Trade Center site - along with a synagogue and a church and a Buddhist temple.
            “He feels that the protest against the mosque is making his job (in Afghanistan) much more difficult.  It only fuels the feeling in the Islamic world that we are fighting against the Muslim faith.  He asks, ‘Are we really working against hate and terrorism by discriminating against other people of faith?’”  End quote.
            Well, the wisdom and maturity of this young man, and of our own Caitlin, I think, provides hope that such sentiments may indeed take root in this next generation.  Perhaps, by the grace of God, those who come after us will do far better than we have at understanding and respecting cultures, and races, and religions that are different from our own.  May it be so.
Dear friends, whatever your political leanings, I urge you, do not get caught up in ideology, or pointing fingers.  Instead, let us attend to the needs of the afflicted.  Let us be repairers of the breach.
            Likewise, I implore you, do not stand by while people speak untruths or make broad claims about other cultures or religions - divisive statements that, in the end, make our world more broken, and more dangerous. 
            Let us be repairers of the breach.
            For when you and I work to heal the divisions; when we feed the hungry, and care for the afflicted; then we find nourishment for our own souls. 
            As Isaiah put it, “Then, your gloomy days will be filled with sunshine. You will be like a watered garden, vibrant and alive.”   
            May it be so.  Amen.             

I recently visited the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs (ISCS) with a group of fellow Lutheran pastors. It is Colorado Spring’s only mosque.

We sat and observed their worship service, and I wrote down their order of service as it went:

■ Individual Prayer Time
■ Call to Worship & Invocation
■ Sermon
■ Quran Reading
■ Prayer of the Day
■ Congregational Prayer (when they all knelt and bowed in unison)
■ Sharing the Peace (just like we do, except they use the Arabic word “salaam”)
■ Announcements
■ Dismissal

After the service was over, we visited with the people of this Muslim congregation. They were all gracious and friendly, and they are a mix of people representing a diversity of ethnic heritage. They are American Muslims who are East Indian, Persian, Arabic, Southeast Asian, Black, and White. There was even a fair-skinned, red-headed, Muslim gentleman there.

Even though I KNEW that Islam was a diverse faith group, I realized that I still had preconceptions about what a Muslim looks like based upon the constant skewed representations of Muslims in the American media.

I also noticed that there was one USAF Airman and three Amy Soldiers present in uniform. And as I try to always do, when I greeted these persons with a sincere “Thank you for your service,” I could tell that they really appreciated a fellow American who is a white Christian man saying these words of gratitude to them.

All in all, this congregation was a mix of business people, military, young and old — just like any other American religious congregation. They are family people with cute kids running around, just like our NHLC.

After the fellowship time, we met with the leaders of the congregation and asked them questions. I asked the following: “The critics of Islam say that Islam is fundamentally opposed to freedom of speech and freedom of religion — what do you say to this?” And their answers were excellent!

They said that they love the ways of the USA and its Constitution. They believe in freedom of religion and speech, and that’s why they left their countries of origin to begin with.

One man said that he wouldn’t be able to worship Allah in his own fashion in his former country, because of the strictness of the society there. And another one said that he wouldn’t be able to have a business like he has in his former country, and that he appreciates everything the USA has allowed him to achieve.

Just like the European immigrants of ages past left their home countries in Europe to escape the religion wars and hierarchical societies there at that time, so these new immigrants from the Middle East are escaping the religion wars and unjust hierarchical structures in their countries of origin.

Many of our fellow Americans insist on brushing Islam with an unfair broad brush. They refuse to draw a clear distinction between true Islam and extremist Islam. This is a conscious, prejudicial and discriminatory choice they are making. It is wrong and it is against the way, truth and life of Christ!

One of the mosque leaders told me he thinks that if he and his fellow Muslim Americans are just good people and live out their religion faithfully and lovingly then people will come to accept them in time. I hope it is that simple, and the USA doesn’t repeat the unjust history of what was done to Japanese Americans back in WWII…

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